‘House’ felt like home ; Actress taps her Brazilian heritage to inform her character in Unicorn show.

Posted March 1, 2009

The Kansas City Star

Vanessa Severo was 10 years old when she made her stage debut.

Her father, a native of Brazil, was in the U.S. Army stationed in Frankfurt, Germany. Every day Vanessa rode the train and bus to the German-American school, and one day on the way home she noticed a German playhouse.

“After about a year … I got off the train and went in and asked them when auditions were,” she recalled. It turned out the theater was operated by people from England, and they were planning a production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore.”

“I did not tell my mother, and I went there after school and I sang a little song and did a little dance, and I got cast in a minute little role,” she said. “And I told my mother I’d been cast in a play. My parents have always been the most supportive people. I lucked out completely. And they came to see it.

“I remember when the curtain came down I was so elated, I was so filled with this feeling I had never felt before, (that) I screamed at the curtain call and got in big trouble. But it was a scream I couldn’t help because I was so happy. Does that sound ridiculous?”
Severo, 30, has never really stopped feeling that way about acting. And she brings an international background — her parents spoke a mix of Portuguese and English — to every role she plays.

Although Severo was born in Boston, she thinks of herself as a Brazilian native, like her parents, and she holds dual citizenship.
But she has never played a role specifically identified as a Brazilian until the Unicorn Theatre’s production of “The Clean House,” in which she plays Matilde, a maid who inherited the gift of joke-telling but who hates to clean.

Friends and colleagues had been telling her about Sarah Ruhl’s comedy since it premiered in 2004, and they all had the same opinion: Severo had to play this role.

“I might be Brazilian, but she’s straight-off-the-boat Brazilian from a small village,” Severo said. “I just remember being there as a little kid. So I’m kind of doing an interpretation of my mother, because Matilde has a great openness and innocence about her and that’s very much what my mother is — very warm and friendly and accepting of everything and just wanting to laugh and have a good time. That’s very Brazilian.”

Vanessa Severo in "The Clean House" (Kansas City Star)

The play is on one level a comedy of manners. Lane, a doctor played by Peggy Friesen, wants absolute control of her life and surroundings, which proves to be impossible with the free-wheeling Matilde in the house.
But then few things in life are really controllable. Her husband, also a doctor (Walter Coppage), falls in love with one of his patients, Ana, a woman from Argentina (Merle Moores), and meanwhile Lane’s sister (Jan Rogge) finds comfort in housework and volunteers to take on Matilde’s duties, while Matilde dreams of becoming a comedian in New York.

Ruhl incorporates elements of farce, but the play is unique. It has an offbeat sensibility all its own. Some of dialogue is in Portuguese and Spanish, and although Ruhl offers translations in an addendum to her play, director Cynthia Levin said she chose not to share those translations with the audience.

In one scene between Matilde and Ana, she changed a few words to English. But that’s it. She thinks that within the context of the play the actors’ skills will make the meaning clear enough.

Levin added that Severo was the only actress she considered to play Matilde.

“There was nobody else who could do this,” she said. “This play is her style. I think I knew from the beginning it was going to be Vanessa and Peggy.”

“I love that Matilde hates to clean,” Severo said. “She hates it so much. It’s (about) what we choose to look at. She says at one point in the play, ‘I have never liked to clean. When I was a little girl I thought if the floor is dirty, look at the ceiling; the ceiling is always clean.’ ”

Severo aid she hasn’t done much research beyond her gene pool. When she was a toddler she lived in Brazil with her mother while her father was getting established in the U.S., and she has drawn on her sensory experiences of that time.

“I remember the beach really well,” she said. “I remember no hot water when I took baths or showers. I think it was because we were poor, but I didn’t have towels after a bath and I would be dried off with talcum powder. Every time I smell tar being poured I think of Brazil because they must have been working on the roads around there … I remember the toys. The toys were all really cheaply made, and they were huge. They never made little things.”

In the play she wears heels, which she loves. Wearing heels, Severo said, is very Brazilian.

“I love that Matilde would walk around this house cleaning in big old heels, like a Brazilian,” she said. “Brazilians, even if they go to the grocery store at 8 in the morning, they do their hair up, they put on a full face and makeup, they put on sparkle-sparkle jewelry and heels this big and go buy eggs and come home.”

In some ways Ruhl’s play is driven by the contrast between North and South American cultures. In the North, it’s all about order and control. In the South, it’s about living life in the moment.

The Americans in “The Clean House” are “very rigid, very orderly, very ‘this is my space, this is my bubble, this is my routine,’ and it shows that the women from other countries in this play are nothing like that,” Severo said. “On the first day of rehearsal I said Brazilians have a saying in Portuguese that translates: ‘When God said work by the sweat of your brow, Brazilians knew he was just kidding.’ ”

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

© 2011 Kansas City Star and wire service sources

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